Recalibrating

December 2018

When I was sick over the summer months, writing was a welcome distraction. When I got sick again at the end of the term, it became obvious that the pace associated with writing as a distraction and the pressure of multiple deadlines was part of the problem.

I’ve decided to follow the advice of the wayfinding app, Waze and recalibrate.

I’ve used recalibration as the rationale to break into the stack of reading that I had been saving for the holidays. This past weekend, I devoured Emilie Pine’s Notes to Self, which won Newcomer of the Year at the 2018 An Post Irish Book Awards. With an actual book in my hands, my bookmark was a handwritten note of thanks for my order from the two women who founded Tramp Press. And who don’t publish manuscripts sent to them addressed ‘Dear Sirs.’

I’m well into Sally Rooney’s Conversation with Friends. By the time I finally got around to cracking the spine, Rooney’s gone and published another novel, Normal People, which was nominated for Book of the Year, also at the 2018 An Post Irish Book Awards.

Next on the stack is Irish Senator, Lynn Ruane’s People Like Me, the An Post Irish Book Awards winner in the non-fiction category. Lynn Ruane was the respondent for a keynote address I gave in Dublin last winter. She’s quick witted, forthright, and kind, and I’m planning to lose an entire weekend to her newly published memoir. Many of those who have read it did so in a single sitting, and I’m planning to do the same.

Ida Milne’s Stacking the Coffins makes the cut too. It’s a story of illness, war and revolution in Ireland. It will be the only influenza welcomed into my home over the holiday. The stack includes Sinéad Gleeson’s anthology, The Long Gaze Back, for that rare occasion (I hope) when I don’t have the entire weekend to spend with a book. I started working my way through it months ago. Yes, months. So far, I’ve read four stories. Yes, four.

I’m optimistic that I’ll finish reading the copy of the Irish Literary Supplement that I’ve been moving around, from room to room, in the house. Since October.

If humour is the best medicine, then there’s fiction, too, in the form of Emer McLysaght and Sarah Breen’s The Importance of Being Aisling. Their previous book, Oh My G-d What a Complete Aisling left me in stitches. I was never a follower or a fan of their Facebook page, but I am of their novels.

Anna Burn’s book, Milkman is on my list too. If Canada Post delivers it.

There’s a theme that threads through my stack of books: it’s a literary escape to the island destination to where WestJet has recently cancelled their direct flight from St. John’s, Newfoundland.

If they can recalibrate their plans on a whim, then I can do the same.

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Trusting Myself: The First Draft

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I’ve read enough detailed outlines, conference abstracts, and thesis and book proposals to know that what’s proposed and intended, sometimes, never materializes.

I’ve learned to trust my own process for producing a first draft. I begin from a few sentences that I’ve scribbled, often hastily, in a notebook that’s earmarked specifically for this purpose. I use this notebook to record my ideas so they don’t get crushed under the weight of banal email messages.

I don’t begin with a bibliography, or an outline. I don’t sketch out the paper’s various sections in advance. I don’t begin with a specific academic journal in mind, although I have some ideas about the audience. For some people, this would be a sure-fire way to generate a long list of good ideas that never, ever appear in print.

Instead, I begin from momentum and allow myself to enjoy writing. It’s important that I begin writing from my initial moments of excitement, and that I begin from my own ideas, not from the ideas of others. Often, my most productive writing days are those first few days I spend working on a new idea. I write quickly. I don’t worry about structure. I don’t worry about editing, or word count.

This stage of writing feels exhilarating.

When the new ideas and begin to trickle, I begin reading. This is a much more tedious process. It involves searching databases, tracking down citations, completing document delivery forms, and printing. I print hard copies so that I can take my reading with me.

Everywhere.

Literally everywhere. My dentist knows what I’m reading.

I sort my reading into piles based on sections that are beginning to emerge in the text. This includes the sections I’ve only sketched out, and those I haven’t yet written, but that I think belong. I read them one pile at a time, so I can get a better sense of how authors speak to one another. I read and make notes, and read and make notes. I make all my notes are in a single notebook, so I can locate them easily and don’t waste time later, looking for elusive scraps of paper or obscurely named files.

I’m conscious of that fact that reading is a strategy that I’ve used previously to procrastinate about writing. I set a deadline for finishing the reading. And, every day that I read, I also open the file with my writing. Based on what I’ve read I make changes – sometimes minor and sometimes significant.

As I keep writing, what I don’t know becomes more obvious. My initial ideas are challenged. My arguments get messier, and so does my writing.

This stage of writing feels far less exhilarating.

Abandoning any writing project at this stage is tempting. But, I’ve learned to accept that these difficulties are part of the writing process. At some point, the process begins to feel less painful. I can see a structure developing. My argument becomes clearer. I know where ideas should go and why they should be there. The process of writing becomes easier again, and this momentum carries me to the end of the first draft.

Then, the editing and re-editing begin.

Follow Up on the ‘Follow Through’

April 2018 Image                                                                                                            Photo credit: Daniela Lamesh

 

Remarkably, there were no snow days (on the East coast) of Newfoundland this winter; but a quirk of nature and an airport closure meant that I had successive snow days in Dublin instead.

Being away made things feel busier, but I managed to write two research-related applications, deliver as a Keynote Address at mid-term time, begin a new research paper, and work on a video project. All were new projects that I managed to get underway while also doing the follow up on the ‘follow through.’

I’ve written previously about the follow up. It often works something like this: you give a conference paper and the session organizer suggests panel members revise and submit their papers to a journal, as a special issue for consideration for publication. Or, the workshop coordinator suggests everyone revise part of their papers for submission, next month, to a blog carnival. Or, the paper you submitted the previous term comes back Revise and Resubmit. Or, (in my case, and) the editors of the volume to which you contributed previously ask you to submit a chapter for an upcoming volume.

When I say yes, the ‘follow through’ is the job of completing all this while also continuing to write. Here are the some strategies I use:

I think very carefully before I say yes.

I ask: Do I have a reasonable sense of the time commitment that’s required? Can I make time for this commitment? Does agreeing to this commitment still allow me time for other writing? And, can I say yes without sacrificing sleep or holidays? Sometimes, the answer is no.

I accept that I’ll be working on more than one writing project at a time.

The reality is that I haven’t had the luxury of a single, focussed writing project since I was a graduate student. But, I do have some control over how many writing projects I take on, and I have accepted that this number will be more than one. I also know that moving from one writing project to another, to another, in a single day will exhaust me more quickly, so I plan accordingly.

I schedule writing time and prioritize it.

Except on Saturdays, I write every morning. Then I work around the writing time that’s already scheduled on my calendar. I don’t feel guilty about prioritizing writing. I don’t apologize for time spent writing.

I write in small portions of time. Sometimes.

I was really skeptical about this advice when it was first given. Really, what can be accomplished in 15 minutes? Apparently, more than you might think. Creativity is not correlated with time. While I’d still rather have a longer uninterrupted period for writing, the strategy of writing in small portions of time helps when I have a lot of projects and when deadlines are close together. I also use this strategy as a way to continue thinking, and for returning to writing more easily.

I make lists.

Lots of lists. They’re all over the place. I note all of the writing project tasks on the same list, in order of importance. I keep lists where I can see them. I don’t get rid of them until I’ve completed all of the items on them. This means I could look at the list for days, or until I do the tasks that I’m avoiding.

I leave my writing projects where I can see them.

Out of sight, out of mind. For me, at least. I recently bought a new piece of furniture with ten cubbies; each one holds the notes for different writing projects. I can see them from my desk, and I don’t ever have to go digging around in closed file drawers. I try to imagine that my writing projects are like houseplants: they don’t like to be neglected. (Sorry, there’ll be no photos of this fabulous piece, light oak and made in Canada by CB2, if you’re curious; it’s not piled neatly enough to share photos).

All of these strategies help me to stay organized, but they do not decrease the pressure of deadlines.

Deadlines, I’ll just have to live with.

 

The Discourse of Difficult

 

Writers' Tears

I think it’s time to ditch the discourse about just how difficult it is to write. It doesn’t serve us well, and it just gives academics something else to complain about.

I know those memes about the difficulty of writing are writers’ attempts to laugh at themselves; and, there’s nothing wrong with that. We can all laugh along with the writer who’s spent an entire morning producing a near-blank page. Sometimes that happens, and it’s healthy to be able to laugh about it. But, repeating the mantra about the difficulty of writing, over and over and over again as academics so often do, isn’t healthy. Writing is not the most difficult part of my job. That doesn’t mean that it’s always easy, or that it’s not sometimes frustrating, but it rarely ever feels excruciating.

This discourse doesn’t serve our students well.

It’s a poor approach to teaching writing. It’s also an ineffective way to help students to enjoy writing and become better writers. It shouldn’t be a surprise to us that some students may learn to dislike what is supposed to be difficult for them. Students will learn that writing is something that is to be endured (somewhat painfully) as a part of their temporary status as university students – like the parking lottery, library fines, and being known by a nine digit identity marker. If we don’t give ourselves permission to see writing as a pleasurable activity at least some of the time, then it’s unlikely our students will learn to see it that way either.

By repeating this discourse, we’re teaching our students to underestimate their own writing potential and abilities, and we’re closing off a valuable avenue of expression to them. We’re also devaluing the supports that we’ve built to encourage them – like writing centres.

This discourse doesn’t serve professors well either.

The discourse of difficulty leads some early career researchers to avoid writing, or, at least to delay its inclusion among their academic responsibilities. This is often to their detriment. A lack of scholarly publications is likely to lead to hurtful assessments by colleagues, whose membership on tenure and promotion committees will almost certainly demonstrate their adeptness at counting.

There might be additional punitive measures for faculty members’ adherence to the discourse of difficulty, including increased teaching loads, denied merit pay, and/or departmental and administrative disfavour. All of these are likely to have negative effects on self-worth, job satisfaction, and career advancement and promotion.

Professors who choose not to confront and challenge the discourse of difficulty are likely to continue to feel its consequences long after their ‘early career’ phase has ended. They’ll quickly discover that they can travel around the globe delivering twenty minute papers at academic conferences and chairing panels about administrative decision-making, can build social networks, and be the person who everyone wants to have a drink with at the conference bar. But, like it or not, those who get to be part of the conversations in academia, and whose ideas get noticed are those whose words actually make it into print.

Challenging this discourse, like other difficult parts of our workplace takes time and perseverance. It also takes practice. Lots and lots and lots of practice.

The next academic myth to tackle?  Perhaps the claim that no one reads what academics write.

 

 

S. A. D. (Seasonally Affected Devising)

Winter image

I was away when the first snow arrived this year. I had retreated to some place warmer, but I returned to a driveway covered in snow and ice. One, or the other, will probably remain there until spring.  Mainland weather reports often aren’t correct about the weather in Newfoundland. We are not part of the Maritimes. It’s not freezing cold here – at least not by Montréal or Winnipeg standards. We get rain during the winter. Followed by freezing rain. And slush.  And, beautiful, light, large flakes of snow. And then those little tiny, almost-not-there flakes that indicate there’s going to be fifty centimetres of the white stuff. We can get all of this in the span of a few hours. This is normal: it’s called winter in Newfoundland.

I’ve begun the transition into winter writing habits.

Because sitting still, without moving, invites the cold and stiff muscles, I encourage the annual winter migration of warm blankets into my study, and their gradual formation into a flock. To retain the heat, and the flock, I close all the doors into my study and shut myself off from the rest of the house. I have a fireplace in here, but I can still hear the whirling wind and the pelting rain, and can see the accumulating snow.

It’s much more difficult to get up early to write in the winter. I have to accept that it takes longer to warm up my body. And my writing.

It takes more physical and mental energy. It takes more coffee.

The lack of light bothers me, and probably more than it should. The sun sets early.  There are also lots of grey days when the sun rarely comes out from behind the clouds. In winter, my study is almost never bathed in sunlight. I try to compensate with a good desk lamp, but most days, it’s still not really bright, or even light.

In the evenings, I spend more time organizing my desk for the next days’ writing activities, so I have no excuses for not getting up.

During the winter, I write in my warm (not-to-be-seen-in-public) writing clothes. I check a weather app before I start writing, so I have a reasonable idea about how long it’s going to take to get out of my writing clothes and into winter clothing, how long it’s going to take to scrape the snow and ice off the car, and how long it’s going to take me to drive in winter road conditions. (I already know exactly what time I don’t want to leave to begin the crawl behind the local school bus run).

My goal is to write early every morning, (except Saturdays).

Every morning. Even when it’s still dark.

Every morning. Even when it’s cold outside.

Every morning. Even when I’d prefer to be sleeping.

Every morning.

 

 

2017 in Review

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In January 2017, I outlined a short list of the five people and things that facilitated my academic writing over the course of the year. Many of those still apply, but I’ve noted some 2017 additions, for which I’m appreciative.

#5: Grant adjudication

It’s a privilege to participate in the process of grant adjudication. Over the past decade, I’ve adjudicated grants for more than half a dozen different granting bodies and agencies. I take this responsibility seriously. I take on this work in addition to my assigned workload, and even though it requires additional reading, some writing, and another deadline. Applicants’ enthusiasm about their research feels contagious. It’s gratifying to read carefully crafted and plotted ideas, words, and plans. The required ranking (as difficult as it is) provides insight into how good ideas are communicated clearly, and submissions reflect how my fields of research and scholarship are actively shaped. Participating in these processes continues to rejuvenate my writing, and my enthusiasm for academic writing.

#4: Massimo Vigenelli’s graphics

Italian graphic artist and designer, Massimo Vigenelli understood the importance of details. I appreciate a perfect typeface, and I’m enamoured with a clean, modernist calendar. Every year, I happily pay a small fortune to have Massimo Vigenelli’s Stendig calendar shipped to me from off the island. I hang it in my home office and use it to record my writing activities and deadlines. I might be able to write without a Stendig calendar, but I’d prefer not to have to try.

#3: Snow days

‘Tis the season. This is Newfoundland, so there will be snow. There will also be snow days. Most businesses, including the university, will close. Folks will be warned to stay off the roads. The snow will accumulate. I’m probably one of the few people who’s hoping for more of these days. I’m giving myself permission to use snow days as unanticipated favours of time and quietness. I will deal with rescheduled classes, meetings, and snow removal later.

#2: My writing desk

I can write almost anywhere. But, my preference is to write at an antique, oak desk that I’ve owned for almost thirty years and have dragged across four provinces. By modern standards, it probably falls short as a writing desk. It sits at a good height, but the surface space is limited. It accommodates my laptop, excellent lighting, a handful of pens and Post-it notes. At best, there’s room for a single, carefully stacked pile of books. It has a lone drawer that squeaks, and the shelf underneath the desk accommodates my printer, and little else. But, I’m conditioned to work at this desk and when I sit at this desk, it’s to write. On snow days, it’s my favourite place to be.

#1: My new book club

I’m beginning 2018 with a new book club, and a new list of fiction, none of which I’ve read previously. A colleague (with whom I also write) researches book culture, and she spends a considerable amount of time explaining that book clubs aren’t just spaces where women gossip and nosh; they’re places where women actually discuss books. I’m looking forward to participating in some of those discussions in 2018.

 

90 Productive Minutes

Writing Notebooks

After teaching for the past 20 years, I have a pretty good idea about how much time it takes to prepare a lecture that I’ve never taught before, and how much time it takes to revise and update a lecture that I’ve taught previously. I have a pretty good idea about how much time a meeting should take. I also have a keen sense (unfortunately from experience) of knowing when a meeting has taken far too much time, but we’re all still in the same room with nothing being accomplished.

I also know how much time it takes to sort and file the papers on my desk. And that’s more time than anyone would think is reasonable.

I’m still learning how much time it takes to plan and complete specific writing tasks. I want to know this because if I know how long it takes to complete a task, I’ll have a better idea about how long it takes to work through all of the tasks that are necessary to complete a single writing project. And, if I know how long it takes to complete a single writing project, I can better manage simultaneous projects, and work towards deadlines instead of past them.

Also, I’d like more time to do other things. Nothing extravagant. Just things like cooking a meal, going for a long walk, or having coffee with friends. A hobby? (Laughter, and more laughter).

These notebooks represent some of my writing time. Every two pages (single spaced and single sided) represents 90 minutes of writing. Each of these 90 minute sessions is also a guided meeting with other writers, in Jo Van Every’s, Meeting with Your Writing, https://jovanevery.ca/mwyw/

Full disclosure: this is outright promotion, she has lots to offer. Check it out.

In each 90 minute session, I intentionally plan and track my writing. I identify specific writing tasks to be completed, and then track my focus and progress. If this sounds like a structured process, that’s because it is.  That’s why it’s 90 minutes that I’ve spent writing, instead of 90 minutes spent in procrastination-related activities, like folding laundry.

When I look back though these notebooks, I’m surprised at relatively how minor many of these writing tasks appear. I’ve record tasks like: move text from one section to another in the paper; integrate the ideas from a single section of an article into my draft; devise an outline of a single section; write two well-structured and succinct paragraphs in the conclusion; check the citations in the Notes.

You get the general idea.

In an average 90 minute session, I can begin one of these tasks, but often, I don’t carry it through to completion. This might seem frustrating; but, I’ve learned to put it in the larger context of what I’ve learned about writing so far. I’ve learned that: even during a busy week, I can find time for at least one 90 minute writing session; what seem like relatively small writing tasks will often take longer to complete than I think they will; that getting these tasks started is an accomplishment, and that completing these small tasks is an even bigger accomplishment; that I can control my focus by concentrating on specific tasks; that projects proceed more quickly when I write regularly; and, that writing often generates new ideas for future writing projects.

I’ve learned that 90 minutes, plus 90 minutes, plus 90 minutes, plus 90 minutes adds up. And that it’s a pretty good feeling when it does.

 

Conference Basics

Scicily June 2015 127-1

I present my research at academic conferences, where I frequently cross paths with a previous graduate student who’s now a colleague with a completed doctorate.

Some of the conferences we attend are better than others.  (That’s an actual conference venue pictured above).

Good conferences are often down to their participants. So, at the last conference we attended, we discussed what we considered to be ‘conference basics’ for participants. Thanks, Pamela!

Here are our basics:

When applying to participate, submit a clear abstract, title, and author bio. Incomplete programmes aren’t necessarily a reflection of the conference organizers; often, they’re a reflection of unorganized participants. Conference organizers are busy people, and some of them won’t use their precious and finite time to chase you down for information that you’ve already been asked to provide to them.

Time your presentation in advance. This way, you won’t appear flustered or affronted when an efficient session chair informs you that your allotted time is finished.

If you’re included on the schedule, but you cannot attend, let the organizers know as far in advance as possible. Awkward? Perhaps. But, it’s also awkward for the session chair and other presenters if you’re a ‘no show.’ As a courtesy, other presenters have timed their own presentations. Why should they be left in potentially awkward situations because you didn’t inform the conference organizers about your absence?

Test your technology in advance of your presentation. There’s something about being in front of an audience (even a familiar one) that makes it likely that you’ll fumble with the most mundane technological task. Even those same technological tasks that you perform every day.

Twitter protocol didn’t used to be part of conference basics, but, it should be today. Having no policy about Twitter in place at a conference or meetings doesn’t mean that it isn’t relevant. If you’re provided with a specific Twitter feed, feel free to use it, but apply some common sense. Personally, I don’t mind if people tweet my paper while I’m presenting it. However, one of my colleague does mind. She wants to know her audience is listening, and she doesn’t accept that tweeting and listening can happen simultaneously. Knowing this, I’m not going to tweet during her presentation. I’ll tweet after it and be courteous enough to share my tweets with her.

Attend presentations other than your own.  ‘Surely, people don’t present their work, and then just leave?’ They do. And, it’s rude. Conferences involve listening. Listening is work. It is tiring. So, you don’t have to participate in every single session, but you do have to participate, as an audience member in sessions other than your own.

As an audience member, ask smart questions of other presenters and be courteous. Presenters remember smart questions, and they also remember questions that are asked in especially rude or demeaning ways. Which would you prefer to be remembered for? Most presenters hope to receive feedback about their research and engage in scholarly conversations. While it may be tempting to preface your questions with a long-winded-statement, disguised-as-a-preamble, about your own research (and for administrators, about the situation at your own particular university) resist this urge. It’s more likely to stop that conversation than to keep it flowing. If it’s entirely necessary that the presenter know all about your work and its importance, you can update them during the scheduled coffee break.

It can be especially difficult to attend conferences hosted at your own university or city, or in your own hometown. Other obligations pull you away, or you might assume that you’re too important to be pulled away from your desk. Honestly, I’m not sure I know anyone whose job is so important that they can’t plan, in advance, to attend a few sessions at a conference.

Attend the scholarly association’s Annual General Meeting. (It’s likely listed as the AGM in the conference program). Conference organizers count on participants to attend. If you don’t attend, the people who have been working hard all year on your behalf, will not have the quorum needed to continue transacting association business on your behalf.

Belong to academic associations. Most academic associations need members and membership fees. They also need executive members, who are elected from among their own members who will, one day, organize conferences.

If these conference basics don’t seem relevant to you now, they might in future, when you’re among the conference organizers.

And, lastly, get involved, enjoy the conference, and have fun.

 

Writing Bliss

Arteles Photo

I spent the month of August with a small group of writers and artists at a residential artists’ retreat in rural Finland. The locals often hear Newfoundland, pronounced properly, as ‘New Finland,’ so they’re particularly interested to hear about ‘here.’

My month of writing bliss has me wondering what attitudinal changes (hey look folks, no costs!) might make writing spaces in universities more hospitable.

I know that a writing residency is an artificially constructed environment. But having said that, it does offer some clarity about the conditions that facilitate creativity and writing.

Among its greatest value was what Helen Sword, in Air and Light and Time and Space calls “the power of place.” The place was beautiful. Think big skies, open green fields, blue lakes, gardens, forest, and extended daylight. It had it all. It had a ready supply of wild blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, red currants, white currants, gooseberries, and chanterelle mushrooms.

It was quiet.

So quiet.

We enjoyed the company of writers and artists, from nine different countries, who were equally interested in and committed to creative processes.

Writing and creativity were visible and valued.

Every day.

They weren’t secretive activities that only happened behind closed doors. We often worked with our doors open, in communal studio spaces, and in our shared living spaces. We cooked in the large kitchen, often ate together, and installed the disco ball in the kitchen (think 1980s Newfoundland kitchen party?) for a few late nights.

We discussed writing. Openly and often.

We had a weekly, group discussion about our creative processes. We shared half-formed ideas and experiments.

We had conversations about writing that acknowledged its intrinsic value as an activity that instigates thinking, reflection, and contemplation. It was refreshing— like a plunge in the cold lake after a hot sauna—to have conversations about writing that didn’t presume its synonymous use with the word publishing.

We had strong Finnish coffee.

And, a wood burning sauna.

We took long walks. Every day.

We had staff. Seriously. They were other artists whose job it was to ensure we had the conditions we needed to create. They wore badges that said ‘Creative Forces.’  And who doesn’t want one of those?

We had time for reading. We recommended books and poems, and amended the lists with our responses and reactions.

The creativity in work spaces permeated our social activities. Dancing, campfires, late night star-gazing, impromptu coffee windows, listening tours in the woods, and Tiki universes? All entirely possible.

I thought. I read. I wrote.

And wrote. And wrote.

Ah, bliss.